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Blue Hawaii

Untogether

(Arbutus; US: 12 Mar 2013; UK: 4 Mar 2013)

Untogether is a study of detachment. As its rather beautiful sleeve art indicates, it’s an album where two things seem to come together but fail to do so—sometimes separated by inches, other times by miles. The two members that form the Montreal-based Blue Hawaii, Alex Cowan and Raphaelle Standelle-Preston, could in another life be the most romantic duo in the world; Standelle-Preston, especially, has a voice that’s a real thing of beauty. Amidst Untogether‘s frigid demeanor, her airy vocals provide flashes of poetic longing, the kind that the LP is aiming at capturing. The composite parts of Blue Hawaii’s style here are, at least on paper, perfectly matched: glitchy electronics, spliced-up vocals, and a strong sense of mood are but a few of the things this record has going for it.


The latter especially is where Blue Hawaii succeeds the most. Untogether is a truly detached experience; it sounds as if it were made by ghosts. A sense of longing, of feeling that you’re being excluded from something you see as essential to yourself, is what’s left in the wake of Blue Hawaii’s musings here. Like Cowan and Standelle-Preston’s inability to connect with each other on the cover art, even though the individual components of the music here all technically mesh, i.e. they remain in-key and in the same tempo, they don’t sound at all like they’re coming together.


Rather, they all float in a universe where they all happen to align in certain ways, without ever finding a way to traverse the spaces between them. This “untogetherness” is seen manifested quite literally in the instrumentation itself: the synth lines will abruptly start and stop, the vocals are chopped up into staccato fragments, and in some cases ideas are left unthought. “With fearlessness and confidence / I dream myself above the rest,” Standelle-Preston sings on lead single “Try to Be”. It’s not clear who “the rest” are or what it is she sees herself overcoming, but that’s precisely the point: dreams and aspirations often never come to fruition, just as most anyone’s dreams will fail to be fully realized.


A real-life corollary to the sounds of Untogether is leaving the club after going alone; you’ve likely been shoved up against a great deal of people, but after leaving there’s an unassailable feeling of loneliness that overtakes you. The second part of the album’s highlight “In Two” captures this quite directly; its pulsating beat is ripe for the club, but it’s far from anything one would be enthused about dancing along to. As remix-begging as this track is, you’ll never hear someone yell, “This is my JAM!” when a particularly brave DJ decides to include this in her mix. Its mechanical, frigid sense overtakes its danceability; even when Standelle-Preston’s voice enters, delivering what is just short of having a sing-along quality melody, the only thing you’re likely to feel is alone.


But while in terms of achieving its goals this album is dead-on, for that same reason it’s also not a pleasant thing to listen to. Untogether is very effective at eliciting uncomfortable feelings; any record devoted to the emotionally distant parts of life is going to make you feel its hurt. What Cowan and Standelle-Preston have done here, however, is pin-pointed every conceivable way they could make their music sound disjointed, to the point that they ridded any unity in their songwriting.


There are moments on Untogether where the music comes close to the sensuality that it frequently hints at, but it’s so caught up in embracing separation that it pushes out anything resembling redemption. It’s so ethereal that it’s barely there. Common wisdom and John Donne tell us that no person is an island, but what Blue Hawaii has created here is any indication, not only can people be their own islands, they can ascend into their own solitary atmospheres. That’s the kind of life envisioned by Untogether: a life where humans can distance themselves so strongly that they can be in each other’s presence and still be worlds away, with no common threads to string themselves together. It’s a dangerous proposition to entertain, one that many will likely venture to explore. But be warned: if you get caught up enough in Untogether, you might just float away.

Rating:

Brice Ezell is the Assistant Editor of PopMatters, where he also reviews music, film, and books, which he has done since 2011. He also is the creator of PopMatters' Notes on Celluloid column, which covers the world of film music. His writing also appears in Sea of Tranquility and Glide Magazine (formerly Hidden Track). His short story, "Belle de Jour", was published in 67 Press' inaugural publication The Salmagundi: An Anthology. You can follow his attempts at wit on Twitter and Tumblr if you're so inclined. He lives in Chicago.


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